Even the dark cell of Capua had not left Spartacus feeling as securely and completely trapped as he was right now.
The Thracian had achieved so much in the nearly three years since his last time standing in the gladiatorial arena. He’d been a mock hero of entertainment then, killing others like him for the enjoyment of the bloodthirsty crowd. But ever since he and his followers had seized kitchen knives and fled from their prison, he had become something far more. He had become a real hero to real people in a real life-and-death situation. The battles of the gladiators had been staged, even though the spilled blood had been all too real. Yet every drop of Roman blood that stained all of Italy from the Alps to Rhegium had been spilled for a reason, for the sake of freedom, at least in Spartacus’ mind. Freedom had been the tantalizing hope that had drawn him every step of the way.
And it was freedom now that he had lost. He might be a real hero to the rebels now, a kind of legend, but he feared that he would never be the one thing he really wanted to be: free. An ordinary Thracian living an ordinary life on the high plateau where he had run and played as a boy. He rued the day that he had become a Roman soldier.
The Cilician pirates had been Spartacus’ trump card, his last hope, but now, that hope was gone. Because Crassus had caught up.
It’s easy to imagine Crassus practically cackling with glee when he saw the predicament that his worthy adversary had gotten himself into. Spartacus might not have been holed up in a town—or upon the flank of an active volcano—but his position on the peninsula of Bruttium left him almost as vulnerable to a siege as if he had chosen to bring his army into a city. That was, if Crassus could do the impossible: build a wall across the entire peninsula, a wall that would have been forty miles long.
Even as Spartacus scrambled to find a way out, Crassus was busy sealing off his only hope of escape. Crassus’ men were driven by a force even more powerful than the hope that Spartacus was offering his people: fear. Knowing that they had to fight or die, they strove to build the enormous wall, complete with a fifteen-foot ditch at the foot of it, in a matter of days.
Spartacus believed the only way to escape was to head toward Sicily. He ordered his men to begin building rafts, made by lashing planks to empty barrels; lumber was cut wherever it could be found, and shipbuilding was attempted. But the rafts were washed out to sea by the fast-flowing waters of the strait, and so, the attempts were abandoned. Some sources claim that Crassus took measures to put a stop to the shipbuilding, although his methods are not described.
Winter came thick and cold that year. The temperatures plummeted, and the balmy summers that had been so good to Spartacus and his men were gone now, reducing fertile Bruttium into what felt like a bare and icy wasteland. Snow fell among the rebel camp and turned to slush, trampled by the feet of men and horses. There were very little provisions left for the men, as Bruttium had already been stripped almost bare, and there was even less grazing for the horses. Crassus, smug and safe behind his ramparts, knew that he would barely have to fight the rebels at all. Starvation would be his weapon, and he would wield it with a far greater skill than Claudius Glaber had at the feet of Vesuvius.
It was as if the presence of the wall somehow dimmed the golden glow of Spartacus’ charisma. Faced with hunger and death, the men had lost hope, and they had lost faith in their leader after his decision to trust the pirates. Cracks began to appear in the cohesion with which Spartacus’ men had operated in the early days. The men were hungry, desperate, and terrified. Spartacus knew that it was only their tenacity and fire that had brought them this far, and if he lost those two qualities, then the war would be over. He needed to strike now, hard and fast, not only to gain freedom but to regain morale. It was all they had left.
One night, a snowstorm descended upon the two encamped armies, and Crassus felt a rush of relief and excitement as he watched the white flakes cascade thickly down onto the slumbering landscape. His men had ample food and firewood; the rebels, on the other hand, had been trapped for some time now, and they would have stripped the landscape utterly bare of warmth or sustenance. Surely this snowstorm would be enough to break them. Those left alive in the morning would come crawling to him for surrender, and he would go home to Rome, and the consuls would give him a triumph, and he would finally be on equal footing with Pompey.
Crassus, however, had underestimated one thing about the rebels: their toughness. These were not Roman legionaries who had been given a carefully calculated ration, trained in exactly the right way, or grown up in homes with food and freedom. These men used to be slaves. They were used to being punished for exhaustion by being given more work and less food. They were used to being beaten and starved. They were used to being trapped, and as much as it panicked them, it could not crush them. A mere snowstorm was nothing compared with the icy rage they’d often experienced at the hands of their masters, and so when Spartacus gave one more rousing speech, rallying his army one more time, they rose up and followed him.
None of the Roman legionaries were expecting it when the sound of marching feet among howling snow on the other side of the wall turned out to be the rebel army. Despite being half-blinded by the blizzard, the slaves were attacking. Somehow traversing the massive ditch, they scaled the wall with the same quick agility as they had used rappelling down the cliffs of Mount Vesuvius. Spartacus was leading them personally, and his sword flashed in his hand, snowflakes scattering on his cloaked shoulder, as he struck down one Roman soldier after another. Reinforcements were slow to gather, and by the time the legions could pull themselves together, Spartacus’ army was gone: it had melted away into the snowstorm, disappearing but for their tracks. And with the snow coming down fast, even those were almost impossible to follow.
Once again, the rebels had slipped through Crassus’ clutches, and Spartacus had access once more to southern Italy. Now perhaps, at last, he could drive north, as hard and as fast as possible, to reach the Alps by the time spring broke and finally break free into the land that he loved and missed. At this point, most classical historians agree that Spartacus’ heart was set on nothing but going home. There were many obstacles between the great Thracian and Thrace itself, but at least now he was traveling in the right direction.
But once again, the greatest of those obstacles would prove to be disunity in Spartacus’ own ranks. The Germans and Gauls among them—many of them the same men who had followed Crixus in that first fateful split—didn’t want to return to Thrace. They still believed that Rome could be conquered, even despite the setbacks they had lately suffered. This time, Spartacus refused to comply with them. He was going north, and if the Germans and Gauls wanted to get themselves killed, then that was their choice. With most of the Thracians following him, Spartacus kept pushing north, putting distance between himself and the Roman legions.
It was just as well. Crassus had been surprised by the attack in the snowstorm, and he was enraged by the fact that Spartacus had escaped. Terrified of decimation, his troops raced after Spartacus, determined to catch him. Almost demented by jealousy and rage, Crassus was driving them on harder than ever, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before Pompey returned.
But they didn’t catch up with Spartacus—at least, not at first. Instead, they caught up with the group of Germans and Gauls that Spartacus had left behind. Whether or not they had been expecting tens of thousands of Roman legionaries to come marching down upon them, the group of rebels was not ready to fight them. Even Spartacus knew better than to engage Crassus in a pitched battle; it was why he had attempted his escape in a snowstorm instead of attacking the wall under more favorable conditions. The event that followed was less of a battle than it was a downright disaster. Twelve thousand three hundred rebels perished, cut down mercilessly by the Roman legionaries, and Crassus went on to pursue the rest of Spartacus’ army.
Spartacus, meanwhile, had come across the Roman vanguard. It’s unspecified how many men were in this vanguard, although the name of its commanding officer is known, a cavalryman named Lucius Quinctius. Quinctius had been attempting to pursue Spartacus ever since he had slipped past him after escaping from the wall, and Spartacus eventually turned back to attack him. This time, with the battle being fought in a series of quick guerrilla movements, Spartacus’ army was successful. The vanguard was defeated, and Spartacus and his men were able to keep heading north. Quinctius survived the attack and went on to become a successful politician, but he was never known for his military efforts.
Who knows whether they would have made it, scrambling through Italy as they had done before, all the way back to the Alps? Who knows whether Spartacus might have been able to go home instead of standing by the mountains, like Moses, gazing into the untouchable Promised Land? Perhaps they might have, if they’d been able to keep going. But once again, for reasons unknown, the rebel army came crashing to a halt after the defeat of the Roman vanguard.
Even classical historians could only guess at what caused Spartacus to stop where he did, once again on the very precipice of freedom. Much of it may have had to do with the fact that Spartacus’ ragtag rebel army was simply exhausted, incapable of going a step farther after the arduous winter they had suffered. Some historians speculate that the victory over the Roman vanguard had once again gone to the rebels’ heads. They may have hoped that all their struggles were merely temporary setbacks and that they could still defeat Crassus if Spartacus would only lead them. Yet most historians agree, and it would appear, that Spartacus himself wanted nothing more than to head back toward the Alps.
Whatever happened, the rebel army came to a halt on the banks of the Silarius River. It is very plausible that the rebels wanted to bring the fight to Crassus, and if that was the case, Spartacus was faced with a terrible choice. Should he do once more what he had done with Crixus, and with the other band of Germans and Gauls, and leave them to the fate they’d chosen? Spartacus could have easily chosen to take a few sympathizers and flee north; the remaining men might have slowed Crassus down long enough for Spartacus, at least, to make his escape. But Crixus had already been killed, and so had the others that Spartacus had left behind. He wouldn’t have any more of the rebels’ blood on his conscience. So, fatally, Spartacus decided to stay.
As he’d done after the death of Crixus, however, Spartacus committed a dark and ironic act after hearing about the deaths of the 12,300 men. Perhaps in a last bid to dissuade his men from fighting Crassus in open battle, or perhaps simply to fuel their fighting spirit, he ordered that one of the Roman prisoners be brought to him. A cross was made by nailing together two long planks of wood. Then the prisoner, bound and held down, was dragged onto the cross. A single nail was driven through his ankles and into the wood; two more were hammered painfully through the long tendons of his wrists. Blood soaked the wood and ran down his skin, and as he screamed in agony, the rebels hauled the cross upright. And the Roman hung crucified against the gray winter sky, dying slowly and in terrible agony as Spartacus’ whole army watched.
Spartacus turned to his troops and told them that if they stayed, if they fought, and if they lost, then this was what would happen to them. They would be crucified, and they would die the ugliest, most painful death imaginable. Crassus would make sure of that.
But the men stayed. And Spartacus was faced one last time with the deadliest choice of all: fight or die.